Tag Archives: Dōgen’s Waka

Transience Within Boundless Nature

Today, we repost a commentary by Okumura Roshi as one possible way to reflect on recent events.



世中は Yononaka wa To what can this world
何にたとへん nani ni tatoen be compared?
水鳥の mizudori no The moonlight
はしふる露に hashi furu tsuyu ni reflected in water drops
やどる月影 yadoru tsukikage splashed from a waterfowl’s beak.


This is the tenth waka in the 13 addendum waka in the Shunjusha text. It appears only Menzan’s Sanshodoei collection. It is not certain where Menzan found this verse; if it was composed by Dōgen, he expressed the beauty of impermanence and his insight regarding the interpenetration of impermanence and eternity.

A waterfowl dives into the water of a pond and comes up to the surface. It shakes its bill; water drops are splashed. In each and every one of the droplets, the boundless moonlight is reflected. The water drops stay in the air less than a moment before returning to the pond. Each of them is as bright as the moon itself.

Dōgen sees the scenery in the moment a waterfowl shakes its beak and water drops are splashed. Each and every droplet reflects the boundless moonlight. He thinks our lives in this world is the same. Our lives are as impermanent as the water drops, and yet, as he wrote in Genjōkōan, the boundless moonlight is reflected. In Shōbōgenzō Hotsubodaishin (Arousing Bodhi-mind), Dōgen wrote:

Our lives arise and perish within each ksana. Their swiftness is like this. Moment after moment, practitioners should not forget this principle. While being within this swiftness of the arising and perishing of transmigration in each ksana, if we arouse one single thought of ferrying others before ourselves, the eternal longevity [of the Tathagata] immediately manifests itself.

From the end of the Heian Era (794 – 1192) to the beginning of the Kamakura era (1192 – 1333), Japan experienced a transition in social structure and political power. The emperor’s court had been losing its power and the warrior (samurai) class had been getting more and more powerful. In the process of the growth of the warrior class, there were numberless civil wars between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan, even in the capital, Kyōto. Finally in the end of twelfth century, the Shogunate government was established in Kamakura by Minamoto Yoritomo. Concurrent with this transition in society were lots of natural disasters. People saw piles of dead bodies on the bank of Kamo River in Kyōto. They believed that the age of final-dharma (mappo) had begun in 1052. They saw the impermanence of society and also people’s lives.

In the very beginning of the famous Tale of the Heike it is said:

The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.[1]

“Gion Shoja” refers to the Buddhist monastery in India and “sala flower” refers to the flower of the sala tree in Kushinagara where Shakyamuni passed away. It is said that when Shakyamuni passed away, the sala trees gave forth flowers in full bloom out of season.

Dōgen’s contemporary, Kamo no Chomei (1153 – 1216), wrote an essay entitled Hojoki (My Ten-Foot Hut) in 1212, one year before Dogen became a monk at Enryakuji in Mt. Hiei. Chomei wrote about the situation in the capital, Kyōto. He recorded that they had many natural disasters such as great fires, whirlwinds, typhoons, earth quakes, etc. beside the destruction caused by the civil wars between Heike and Genji clans. In the beginning of Hojoki he wrote:

[1] Though the river’s current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.

[3] Nor is it clear to me, as people are born and die, where they are coming from and where they are going. Nor why, being so ephemeral in this world, they take such pains to make their houses pleasing to the eye. The master and the dwelling are competing in their transience. Both will perish from this world like the morning glory that blooms in the morning dew. In some cases, the dew may evaporate first, while the flower remains—but only to be withered by the morning sun. In others, the flower may wither even before the dew is gone, but no one expects the dew to last until evening.[2]

These are the well-known examples of people’s sense of transience and the vanity of life in the mundane world at the time of Dōgen. Dōgen’s insight into impermanence is very different from those pessimistic views of fleeting world. As he expresses in this waka, although seeing impermanence is sad and painful, still, that is the way we can arouse bodhi-citta (way-seeking mind) and also see the eternity within impermanence.

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[1] Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
[2] Translation by Robert N. Lawson, on Washburn University website

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2020 Sanshin Zen Community

Meeting with a person

Devoted to the Way

© Can Stock Photo / iamagoo
にほの海や Nio no umi ya On the lake of Nio,
矢橋のおきの Yabase no oki no A ferry boat is sailing
渡し舟 watashi bune offshore of Yabase.
おしても人に oshitemo hito ni [I would like to] push it
あふみならばや afumi naraba ya to meet the person.


This waka is Addendum 13 and the last waka in the Shunjusha text of Dogen Zenji Wakashu (Collection of Dogen Zenji’s Waka). Nio is the old name of the waterfowl called kaitsuburi (grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis). Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan located in Shiga Prefecture, was called Nio no umi (Lake of Nio) because many grebes and other water fowl live there. Today the grebe is the prefectural bird of Shiga Prefecture. Lake Biwa can be seen from Mt. Hiei where Dogen practiced for several years as a novice.

Yabase is the name of a town on the east coast of Lake Biwa in Kusatsu City in Shiga Prefecture. In the ancient times, Yabase was well known as the port of a ferry boat that connected Kusatsu and Otsu, creating a short cut to travel to the capital Kyoto that was much shorter than walking around the lake. Afumi in the last line is a paronomasia that combines oumi, the old name of Shiga Prefecture) and “the person to meet.” Afu can mean to meet (au, 会う), and mi (身) means a body or a person.

The first three lines of this waka describe the scenery of Lake Biwa. A ferry boat is sailing on the lake offshore from Yabase. Then, Dogen (if this waka was written by him) says, even though it is a short cut, he still wishes to push his boat out to meet with the person on the ferry as soon as possible.

This waka was found by Dr. Doshu Okubo in Toyo-wakashu (藤葉和歌集) a collection of waka compiled in the Nanbokucho period (1336 – 1392) by Ogura Sanenori. Dr. Okubo included this waka in Dogen Zenji Wakashu as a part of Dogen Zenji Zenshu published by Chikuma Shobo in 1970. Okubo wrote in his Dogen Zenji Den no Kenkyu (Study of the Biographies of Dogen Zenji, Chikuma Shobo, 1966) that this waka might be evidence that Dogen Zenji attended gatherings of aristocrats for writing waka while he lived in Fukakusa.

In Toyo-wakashu, this waka is included in the section of love poems. People considered this to be a poem by a person who wishes to meet his or her lover as soon as possible so he/she wishes to push out the boat. Because of this, some people hesitated to consider this written by Dogen. Another interpreter thinks this is not necessarily a love poem. Only the compiler of the waka collection thought this waka is about the sentiment of a lover.

I have no basis to decide whether this waka was written by Dogen Zenji or not. The only thing I can suggest is that in Shobogenzo Gyoji (Continuous Practice), Dogen wrote about his encounter with his late master Rujing (Nyojo):

Manoatari senshi wo miru kore hito ni afunari.
I saw my late master with my own eyes; this is [truly] meeting with a person.

If this waka was written by Dogen, I think this expression “hito ni afu (to meet a person)” could mean to meet with a true person of the Way. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen talked about his meeting with many such people who completely dedicated their lives to the Buddha Way.

Dogen also wrote in Shobogenzo Uji (Being time):

Ware hito ni au nari; hito ware ni au nari; ware ware ni au nari; shutu shutu ni aunari.
I encounter a person; a person encounters a person; I encounter myself; going forth encounters going forth.

This quote from Uji has something to do with the koan included in Shinji Shobogenzo (Dogen’s collection of 300 koans) case 92:

Zen master Sansheng (Dharma heir of Linji) said, “When I meet a person, I go out. When I go out, I don’t guide the person.”
Cunjiang of Xinghua Monastery said, “When I meet a person, I don’t go out. When I go out, I guide the person.”

Zen master Yuanwu, the commentator of the Blue Cliff Record; Hongzhi, the Soto Zen master who composed verses on the hundred koan included in the Book of Serenity; and Dogen’s teacher Rujing all mentioned this koan in their Dhama Hall discourses.

I think that if this waka was composed by Dogen, meeting “with a person” means meeting with anyone devoted to the Way. 

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Mountain Dwelling

In the mountains, and in samsara

山居 二首
Two poems on Mountain Dwelling

立よりて Tachiyorite I won’t stop by
かげもうつさじ kage mo utsu sa ji at the bank of the valley stream,
溪川の tanigawa no so that my appearance is not reflected on it.
ながれて世にし nagarete yo ni shi Because I think,
出でんとおもへば iden to omoeba the water will flow
into the world [of samsara].


Addenda 11 and 12 of the Shunjusha text of Dogen Zenji Wakashu (Collection of Dogen Zenji’s Waka) are titled “mountain dwelling (sankyo, 山居)” taken from a collection named Ryakugebon made by a monk named Kakugan (覚巖), who was the abbot of Entsuji in Okayama in the 19th century. We don’t know where Kakugan found these poems. Entsuji is the temple where the famous monk poet Ryokan practiced with his master Dainin Kokusen.

This waka is very similar to Addendum 1.

たちよりて  かげもうつさじ  かも川に みやこにいづる 水とおもへば
(Tachiyorite / kage mo utsusaji / kamogawa ni / miyako ni izuru / mizu to omoeba)
I won’t stop by / at [the bank] of Kamo river, / so that my appearance is not reflected on it. / Because I think, / the water will flow / into the capital.

The wording is a little different after the third line, but the meaning is the same. I don’t think I need to write a comment on this waka.

Addendum 12 

山ずみの Yama zumi no The moon on the mountain brow
友とはならじ tomo towa naraji does not become a friend
峯の月 mine no tsuki of this mountain dweller,
かれも浮世を karemo ukiyo wo Because it is also moving around
めぐる身なれば meguru mi nareba the floating world [of samsara].


The meaning of this poem seems the same as Addenda 1 and 12. It seems Dogen is saying that he does not want to interact with the valley stream and the moon because they have connection with the mundane world. It is difficult for me to think Dogen has such a negative attitude toward the people in the mundane world. It is true that as a Zen Buddhist monk, Dogen put strong emphasis on renunciation of the fame and profit in the mundane world so that he does not rely on political and economic power. However his practice in the mountain is not an escape from the world. Also, he always loves the sounds of valley stream as Buddha’s voice and the moon as the boundless radiant light of the entirety of interdependent origination. 

If Dogen really composed this waka, I hope we can read it as follows:

The moon on the mountain brow
cannot [always] accompany 
this mountain dweller [alone],
because it needs to move around 
and [illuminate the people in] the world [of samsara also].

The moon and the valley streams illuminate and expound the Dharma, not only for monks practicing in the secluded mountain but also for the people in the mundane world.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community

Dew on the Grass

Eternity within impermanence


朝日待つ asahi matsu The dewdrops on a blade of grass,
草葉の露の kusaba no tsuyu no waiting for the morning sunrise,
ほどなきに hodo naki ni [are existing] only for a short while.
急ぎな立ちそ isogina tachi so Autumn wind in the field!
野辺の秋風 nobe no akikaze “Don’t begin to blow in a hurry.”

A dewdrop is beautiful and yet stays only for a short time. There are expressions such as 露珠 (roshu), a dewdrop that is as beautiful as a jewel and 露華 (roka), dewdrops shining in the sunlight like flowers. Our life, that is precious but impermanent without perpetual self-nature, is also compared to a dewdrop (露命, romei), dewdrop-like life. Dogen Zenji used this expression several times, for example, in Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen):

Furthermore, your body is like a drop of dew on a blade of grass; your life is like a flash of lightening. Your body will disappear soon; your life will be lost in an instant.1

While I stayed at Valley Zendo in western Massachusetts, I worked harvesting blueberries at a blueberry farm for a few weeks in the summer for several years. In the early mornings, the blueberry field was so beautiful. Each and every blueberry and the leaves on the plants were covered with dewdrops. In the morning sun, the many acres of the blueberry field looked like a carpet of bright jewels. However soon after sun rose a little higher and the air got warm, all of the dewdrops completely disappeared.

In this waka, Dogen describes dewdrops on a blade of grass on an early autumn morning. The dewdrops stay only for a short while on a blade of grass until the sun rises. When the cold autumn wind blows, even the grass on which the dewdrops stay will wither. Seeing this scenery of the change of season, we human beings feel loneliness and sadness, and have some sympathy or even compassion toward the dewdrops and the grasses. We see our lives are the same as theirs. Soon or later we will all disappear, and we don’t know when.

This is the same reality as Kamo no Chomei wrote about in the Hojoki, which I introduced previously. However in the case of Dogen, this is not a pessimistic view of life. He sees beauty and dignity of life in impermanence. As Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo Genjokoan, every dewdrop reflects the boundless moon light. He sees eternity within impermanence. He also writes in Tenzo Kyokun (Instruction for the Cook):

“Although drawn by the voices of spring, do not wander over spring meadows; viewing the fall colors, do not allow your heart to fall. The four seasons cooperate in a single scene; regard light and heavy with a single eye.”2

We see that spring will come again and plants, flowers, insects, birds and all living beings will become active again. We don’t need to be overwhelmed by the cold autumn wind.


1 Okumura’s unpublished translation.
2 Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A translation of Eihei Shingi (Taigen Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, SUNY), p.49

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2017 Sanshin Zen Community